Coquitlam pillow maker poised to become N95 mask manufacturer

VANCOUVER — Jason Zanatta is saving lives and jobs. The Coquitlam-based producer of pillows and dog beds is poised to become the first manufacturer of N95 respirators in Canada.

Production of medical-grade surgical masks starts on Tuesday, and Zanatta expects production of N95 surgical respirator masks to begin within two weeks.

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“It’s what I had to do to survive, and trying to be a decent human being and trying to help out in this crisis,” said Zanatta, president and CEO of Novo Textiles. “It was either that or close my business.”

It has been a wild three weeks since Zanatta looked out over the floor of his 20,000 square feet Coquitlam factory, agonizing about how to save his business. Dog beds and pillows were not what people were shopping for during a pandemic. When COVID-19 isolation mandates were announced, orders dried up quickly.

Zanatta, who is immune-compromised and the father of two young sons, heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call to action on March 20 asking businesses to mobilize to manufacture personal protective equipment.

Contacts in China helped him source two automated mask production machines. As borders closed and international freight options dried up, he knew he had to act quickly. He paid $600,000 cash for the two-tonne machines.

The first machine was air-freighted to Vancouver, its delivery eased through international channels with help from “various levels of government,” he said.

Zanatta received delivery of the first surgical mask machine on Monday. “I haven’t slept in four nights [in preparation],” he said. He expects delivery of the N95 respirator-making machine in the next two weeks.

“The seamstresses are retraining right now to do quality control, run the machines and do packaging. They are thrilled,” said Zanatta, adding that they will also be manufacturing medical-grade pillows for hospitals.

Zanatta is watching videos in Mandarin and using Google translate to learn the details of how to set up the machine. “Up until the world changed in the past month, when you bought an automated machine, the manufacturer would send an engineer to help you assemble it,” Zanatta said.

He will FaceTime throughout the night with his suppliers in China to tweak the final setup.

Starting Tuesday, 100,000 medical-grade surgical masks will be rolling off the assembly line daily. Once the second machine arrives, he will be able to produce 100,000 N95 masks a day as well.

“Three weeks ago, I was walking the factory floor, and with the majority of my clients announcing closures, I was thinking about how I was going to keep everyone employed. And these people have been with me for so long, I knew that they had families and it was important to keep the family business running.”

Zanatta’s first customer was the Provincial Health Services Authority, with an order for 500,000 masks, followed by the RCMP with an order for 30,000. He is also fielding inquiries from across the U.S.

“We wouldn’t say no to them, but we will be filling our Canadian orders first,” Zanatta said.

DENISE RYAN

Vancouver Sun

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